Ceredigion Archives holds an extensive collection of photographs from the studio of John Turnor Mathias, who operated in the town of Cardigan from the 1860s onward.

Mathias photographed everyone, or so it seems from the hundreds of prints which survived. His work was not confined to the studio; there are also photographs of streets in the town, and of people and animals out-of-doors.

John Turnor Mathias 6 Ceredigion Archives
Everyone wants to be in the picture with this splendidly horned bovine!

Unfortunately, Mathias’ subjects are mostly unidentified. There are a few exceptions but in most cases an evocative but anonymous image is all we have. All the same, the collection is a delight on so many levels, and one particular item offers an opportunity to explore and consider Victorian photography from multiple angles: an album of over 800 photographs, arranged into sections including men, women, children, families, siblings, people in Welsh costume, and others, which served as a catalogue for ordering duplicate prints.

 

John Turnor Mathias 5 Ceredigion Archives
Swipe left or right?

 

Because the process was a complicated one, requiring quite a lot of equipment, skilled set-up and operation, and a long exposure time, the majority of early photographs were taken in a studio, which would have all the necessary equipment required to produce a successful photograph. Sometimes the backdrops and props were set up out of doors to take advantage of the natural light.

 

John Turnor Mathias 7 Ceredigion Archives
A painted backdrop, depicting a wild landscape, a stormy sea, or maybe a view from the window, serves as background, while tables, chairs or columns help the subjects to remain motionless.

 

While the studio environment and the range of props are fascinating all by themselves, the most compelling aspect of the photographs is the people.

 

John Turnor Mathias 8 Ceredigion Archives
Non-modern families

 

They all chose to be photographed in Mathias’ studio. This is one unifying factor; the other, visible to us nearly a century and a half later, is their ‘Victorian-ness’. I won’t attempt to define it; to me, it is striking and recognisable, and when the images are seen individually it somehow trumps the individuality of the sitter. But when presented with a whole page of men, or women, or families, we are able to see through it and appreciate their uniqueness, humanity, and glorious variety.

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Looking at the portraits of these long-dead people, one can invent back-stories, ascribe character traits, appraise, interpret, and pass our modern – and probably inaccurate – judgement. And in doing so, I feel that we not only get closer to the past but also to the present.

Dr. Ania Skarżyńska, Senior Archivist, Ceredigion Archives

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